Arlington, VA

Arlington officials have given the green light for a new childcare center to set up shop in Ballston, in a debate that forced the County Board to weigh its years-long effort to expand access to childcare in the county against the vocal opposition of neighbors to the project.

The Board voted unanimously last night (Tuesday) to award the Bright Horizons Children’s Center with the permits it needs to open a new location on the first and second floors of a building at 4001 Fairfax Drive.

The new center will have room for about 145 kids in all, and include a 4,700-square-foot playground in the small courtyard between the building and an adjacent set of condos at 1001 N. Randolph Street.

The playground, in particular, worried neighbors. Matt Nyce, a board member at the nearby EastView Condos, told ARLnow via email that the location was a “totally inappropriate” place for a playground, given its proximity to two exhaust fans and how close it would be located to homes on the first floors of the two buildings.

But Board members were convinced that some of those concerns were a bit overblown — as Erik Gutshall put it, the Board judged the childcare center unlikely to be “an overwhelming detriment” to quality of life in the area, or to property values.

Officials would acknowledge that the playground would be a bit of a tight fit in the courtyard, and that it would occupy some of Ballston’s very limited open space. But, as the Board weighs a comprehensive overhaul of its zoning regulations governing childcare centers, members also said that they were willing to allow designs that may not be absolutely perfect if it means expanding options for Arlington parents.

“This is not a willy nilly one-off, but consistent with a direction the county seeks to go,” Gutshall said. “This is an evolution as we rethink what is acceptable for our ground floor uses.”

The Board did not make the decision lightly, however. Board member Katie Cristol, a lead backer of the county’s childcare overhaul, said she even considered pushing for a deferral of any decision on the matter, particularly after the Ballston-Virginia Square Civic Association decided to oppose the project.

Collier Cook, the group’s president, told the Board that he worried that dropping a playground on the site would rob the nearby residents of some crucial open space.

And, as an EastView resident himself, Cook said he understood the concerns of his neighbors. One, Andres Delgado, told the Board that the prospect of additional noise was particularly concerning for people who live in the building and work from home.

“We have neighbors who live on the first floor and it goes right into their living room,” Delgado said. “Noise is a big concern for them.”

Similarly, he said neighbors are worried about smoke from the nearby parking garage impacting the kids’ health.

But Zach Williams, an attorney representing Bright Horizons, said the company made every effort possible to address those playground concerns. The childcare center plans to pay for a timer to ensure the exhaust fans aren’t operating while children are outside, and Williams said they even agreed to shrink the playground by 200 square feet to give residents some more breathing room.

Yet, with the county’s ordinances requiring that the center add 75-square-feet of playground space for each child outside at any given time, Williams said Bright Horizons can’t do much more to address those issues.

“We don’t have a lot of flexibility, but we’ve tried to do as much as we can,” Williams said.

Board members commended those efforts and made another point for neighbors worried about noise — considering the way the area is zoned, a new bar or nightclub could easily move into the space instead and set up outdoor seating, which could prompt even more substantial noise concerns than the childcare center.

“It would be completely irresponsible for us, I believe, to suggest we can prevent change from happening,” said County Board Chair Christian Dorsey. “The other ways in which this property could change could be all manner of degrees more intense.”

With this approval in hand, Williams said the center plans to open by January 2020. Bright Horizons is also on the cusp of opening another childcare center in Courthouse, which also faced its fair share of pushback from neighbors last year.

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